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No matter what type of rotator cuff injury you've sustained, your first priority is finding relief from the pain and getting back to the activities you love. But in order to get the right kind of treatment, you need to know whether you're dealing with a strain or a tear, both of which can commonly happen in the rotator cuff.

At Jefferson Orthopedic Clinic, our team of board-certified orthopedic specialists is experienced in diagnosing and treating all types of rotator cuff injuries. We can help you get to the bottom of your pain and get you on the road to recovery.

Here's a look at the key differences between these two types of injuries, as well as the treatments available to provide you with effective, long-term pain relief:

What Is The Rotator Cuff?

The rotator cuff is a group of muscles that are attached to the upper arm bone by a network of tendons, forming your shoulder's ball and socket joint. It is one of the most important components of the shoulder, and it plays an essential role in your ability to lift your arms upward.

The primary tendons in the rotator cuff are:

  • Supraspinatus
  • Infraspinatus
  • Teres minor
  • Subscapularis

Whether you have a strain or a tear, any of these tendons can be affected.

What Increases Your Chances of Sustaining A Rotator Cuff Injury?

As we age the blood flow that allows the tendons in the rotator cuff to repair themselves decreases and over an extended period of time this can lead to tendonitis (inflammation of a tendon) and even tearing.

Sports like baseball, tennis, swimming and any other sport that require extensive arm movement above the head will increase one's likelihood of sustaining a rotator cuff strain or serious injury.

Repetitive manual labor jobs like carpentry or painting put a significant amount of strain on the rotator cuff for similar reasons that sports that require lots of arm movement above the head do.

What is a Rotator Cuff Strain?

A rotator cuff strain is a stretching of the tendons in the shoulder. While these tendons are somewhat flexible, they can only be stretched so far before they become overextended and damaged.

A rotator cuff strain is a common injury that is often caused by repetitive motions of the shoulder, such as those often used in sports or at work. You can also sustain a rotator cuff strain by falling onto an outstretched arm.

Symptoms of a rotator cuff strain typically include:

  • Pain in the shoulder that gets worse with movement
  • Swelling in the affected shoulder
  • Tenderness in the shoulder
  • Weakness in the arm

A rotator cuff strain can range from mild to severe, depending on the extent of the damage. Mild strains may only cause minor discomfort, while more severe strains can lead to significant pain and loss of mobility in the arm.

What is a Rotator Cuff Tear?

A rotator cuff tear, on the other hand, is a complete or partial tear of one or more of the tendons in the shoulder. This type of injury is usually caused by a fall onto an outstretched arm, a direct blow to the shoulder, or the gradual deterioration of the tendons with time, overuse, and age.

Rotator cuff tear symptoms typically include:

  • Severe shoulder pain, especially at night
  • Weakness in the arm
  • Difficulty lifting the arm or reaching overhead
  • A crackling sensation when moving the arm

A torn rotator cuff can range from a small tear that causes minimal pain to a large tear that leads to complete loss of function in the arm.

Types of Rotator Cuff Tears

A rotator cuff tear is generally classified as either a partial tear or a complete tear:

  • Partial tears refer to injuries when the tendon is still somewhat attached to the bone. 
  • Complete tears refer to when the tendon is fully separated from the bone or when there is a major hole or rip in the tendon.

Whether you have a partial or complete tear in the tendon, it’s likely you’ll need medical intervention from an orthopedic surgeon near you.

How Are Rotator Cuff Strains and Tears Diagnosed?

The first step in diagnosing a rotator cuff injury is to consult with one of our experienced orthopedic specialists. During your appointment, we will review your medical history and symptoms and conduct a physical examination of your shoulder.

We may also order imaging tests, such as an MRI or X-ray, to get a better look at the structures in your shoulder and rule out other possible causes of your pain.

Rotator Cuff Strain vs Tear: What's Worse?

There are a few key differences between a rotator cuff strain and tear. A rotator cuff strain is a stretching or micro-tearing of the tendons and muscles surrounding the shoulder joint while a tear is a complete or partial tearing of one or more of the tendons in the shoulder.

A rotator cuff tear is generally caused by orthopedic trauma during a single event, like a fall or direct blow to the shoulder, while a strain is usually caused by repetitive motion over time.

Because of the difference in how they’re caused, strains are typically less severe than tears. However, both injuries can cause pain and loss of mobility in the affected arm.

Treatments for Rotator Cuff Strains

The treatment for a rotator cuff strain or tear will depend on the severity of the injury. For a mild rotator cuff strain, we may recommend a course of conservative treatment, which may include:

  • Resting the shoulder
  • Applying ice to the affected area
  • Taking over-the-counter pain medication
  • Physical therapy exercises to stretch and strengthen the shoulder muscles

If conservative treatment does not provide relief, we may recommend more invasive options, such as corticosteroid injections, shoulder surgery, and more. These injections can help to reduce pain and inflammation in the shoulder.

Treatments for Rotator Cuff Tears

When it comes to torn rotator cuffs, similarly conservative first steps may be taken to alleviate symptoms and allow the tendon to heal. However, for some patients, shoulder surgery is the only effective treatment option.

The type of rotator cuff surgery you need will depend on the size and location of the tear, but the most common procedures include:

  • Shoulder arthroscopy: A small camera is inserted into the shoulder joint to allow the surgeon to see the damage. The torn tendon is then repaired and any damaged tissue is removed.
  • Tendon transfer: This surgery is typically only performed when there is a large tear that cannot be repaired. In this procedure, the surgeon will take a healthy tendon from another area of the body and use it to repair the damaged rotator cuff tendon.
  • Shoulder replacement surgery: In severe cases, the entire shoulder joint may need to be replaced by having shoulder surgery from an orthopaedic surgeon or orthopedic sports medicine specialist.

At Jefferson Orthopedic Clinic, we're passionate about offering the least invasive treatment option that will be effective for each individual patient. Your shoulder specialist will work with you to develop a treatment plan that's tailored to your specific needs and goals.

Visit Your Orthopedic Specialists in Marrero, LA

If you think you may have a rotator cuff injury, it’s important to consult with an orthopedic specialist as soon as possible. Early diagnosis and treatment can help you recover more quickly and prevent further damage to the shoulder.

At Jefferson Orthopedic Clinic, our team of experienced orthopedic shoulder surgeons specializes in the diagnosis and treatment of rotator cuff strains, tears, and other injuries. We offer a full range of nonsurgical and surgical treatments, depending on the severity of your injury.

If you’re ready to find relief from the top orthopedic doctor near New Orleans, schedule your first appointment with Jefferson Orthopedic Clinic today.